Neerja Bhanot’s story of valor and sacrifice is an inspiration to every woman and man to be courageous in the face adverse and tense situations. She was a flight attendant and part-time model who was killed on September 5, 1986 by armed terrorists; she died saving the lives of children and passengers on board Pan Am flight 73.
Neerja Bhanot – Early life and Family Background
Neerja was born on September 7, 1963 in Chandigarh to journalist Harish Bhanot (attached with Hindustan Times, died in 2008, aged 86) and Rama Bhanot. 19 year old Neerja was married in 1985 and moved to the Gulf with her husband Naresh Mishra. But the arranged marriage really did not work; she was frustrated with constant dowry harassment by her in-laws.
After she returned to her hometown in Mumbai, Neerja focused on pursuing a career that was aligned to her interest. She applied for a job as a flight attendant with Pan Am following which she was sent to Miami for training. She got a job as a pursuer.
Pan Am Flight 73 Hijacking Story
The Pan Am Flight 73 started off from Bombay towards New York with stops at Karachi and Frankfurt. When the aircraft was on the tarmac at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, four armed terrorists in airport security uniform boarded the plane.
Neerja quickly alerted the cockpit crew, the 3-member American team consisting of the pilot, the co-pilot and flight attendant. All of the three immediately escaped through the cockpit hatch leaving the passengers and the other flight attendants in a high risk situation.
Left in the lurch, Neerja took upon herself to safeguard the lives of passengers. The terrorists asked for passports of American passengers. Neerja knew that once the Americans would be identified from their passports, the terrorists would kill them. So, she hid as many passports as she could, and then disposed quite a few of them through the rubbish chute.
The hostage crisis situation went for 17 hours, right into the night. With lights off, the terrorists began to indiscriminately shoot at passengers. Neerja and a few other flight attendants helped some of the passengers and crew escape through the emergency door. Neerja Bhanot personally ensured that most passengers were able to scamper away to safety. She however, lost her life to terrorist bullets, as she shielded three children from gunfire.
Pakistan sent its Rangers and SSG Division army to storm the plane. Brigadier T.M. Tiger supervised the operation and they were able to arrest the terrorists. The causalities however were heavy, with 22 people dead and 150 injured. There were totally 380 passengers in all aboard the plane, excluding the crew. 12 of the passengers who died were from India and the rest were from US, Pakistan and Mexico
What happened to Pan Am 73 hijackers?
The hijackers belonged to the Abu Nidal Organization, a terrorist organization. The four men were convicted and sentenced to death. Later, the death sentence was commuted to life sentence. One of the terrorists Zayd Hassan Ab-Latif Masud Al Safarini was released in 2001 was arrested by FBI in Bangkok and sentenced to 160 years in prison. Three others were released by Pakistan but FBI is still on the lookout for them.
Neerja Bhanot –Awards
The Government of India honored Neerja Bhanot with Ashok Chakra Award, the highest award from the nation for bravery during peace time. She is also the youngest recipient of the award. A postal stamp was issued in 2004, commemorating her service to the nation.
The Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust Award is given to two people every year, for a flight crew member who acts beyond the call of duty and for an Indian woman who rises above social injustice and helps other women. There is a Neerja Bhanot Chowk in Ghatkopar, Mumbai named after, which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan in the 90s.
Sonam Kapoor as Neerja Bhanot
Sonam Kapoor has reprised the role of the brave Neerja in the movie of the same name.
Neerja Bhanot – Photos